When leaving the theatre after seeing Men, Women & Children, the latest from Juno director Jason Reitman, my fellow patrons and I had varying views of what the movie was about. Discussions ranged from how it ironically examines communication technology breeding a generation of poor communicators to how it exposes us as helpless collections of molecules, cursed to live on a giant rock in a universe set to collapse. At the time I presented another alternative, but I can’t recall what it was. To be honest, I don’t have a clue what the larger moral of the story is, but I am positive there is one, glaring at me and shoving itself in my face from beginning to end, like a reactive father trying to teach me a complicated lesson that he himself had never thought of before this moment.
The message is lost in a convoluted, and often contradictory, sea of examples, which for Men, Women & Children make up the plot. We follow the lives of several families, all of whom have different unhealthy relationships with technology. There’s a father and son (Adam Sandler and Travis Trope) who have developed a porn addiction that has rendered their sex lives flaccid, even when opportunities arise to be with the hottest of women. There’s another mom (Judy Greer) who has turned her jailbait daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) into an internet sex symbol. We also meet a young former football star (Ansel Elgort) who enters virtual worlds to hide from his personal troubles – and this is just scratching the surface of the flawed people we meet, all of whom use the internet in some compulsive way.
The problem with having so many storylines going on all at once is that it becomes nearly impossible to narrow your emotions and develop any real sense of relatability to the characters. While it’s conceivable that a plot containing so many independent arcs could work, when each seems like they’re a case study taken from a pamphlet handed out to fearful parents by someone who has never owned a smartphone, the whole experiment falls on its face. Whatever the larger message, the overload of extreme examples renders it powerless.
To make matters worse, Reitman subjects us to an inane side story about the Voyager 1 space probe and the teachings of Carl Sagan, which are neatly packaged with a narrator and some expository dialogue explaining how this existential exercise is relevant to the story. But no matter how much we’re told that it all makes sense, the reality is that it doesn’t. The narration and space saga are little more than a laughable attempt to intertwine the multiplots together into a cohesive package, which Men, Women & Children definitely is not.
Reitman spends more time telling us what to feel than letting us feel it, but I suppose he has no other choice since genuine emotion is hard to muster when there’s so much being thrown at us. Some of the story arcs see themselves through to the end and leave us with a sense of change, but most exist as incomplete thoughts that rely entirely on star power and situational melodrama to make an impression. As a result, they feel like flat attention grabs that one might post on Facebook, hoping to get a few empathetic “likes” over their boring everyday-life drama.
Jason Reitman is an extremely talented filmmaker, but he’s slipped with Men, Women & Children in a serious way. His natural ability to present heart-felt, intelligent comedies loaded with subtle social themes is disbanded in favor of a more direct (albeit disjointed) ‘concerned parent’ approach — and it doesn’t work at all. There could have been something beautiful here if he hadn’t decided to treat moviegoers like infants, holding our hands every step of the way, telling us when and how to feel and what changes we need to make before we all become porn-addicted geeks with irreparable body image issues. Maybe he could have scared me into a warm sense of wanting to better myself if his vision was concentrated and focused, but the film has about as much uniformity as my Twitter feed. Much like the Voyager 1 probe, Men, Women & Children is loaded with a collage of the very things that make us human, except this time there’s nothing on board that would make the aliens give a damn.